Britney Sison, an undergraduate biology and chemistry student at the University of Guam, has won an award for her discovery of five potentially undocumented diatoms in mud samples from the Micronesian Islands of Palau, Yap, Pohnpei, and the Marshall Islands. Her discoveries are in addition to two potentially new diatom species found earlier this year by UOG student Gabriella Prelosky.
Diatoms are single-celled algae found in oceans, lakes, and rivers. They are primary producers in the food chain as photosynthetic organisms, according to UOG Professor Emeritus of Biology Christopher Lobban, who mentors the student researchers in the Microscopy Teaching & Research Laboratory on the UOG campus.
Sison’s discovery happened during her research fellowship under the NSF INCLUDES: SEAS Islands Alliance program, a $10 million initiative funded by the National Science Foundation to broaden participation in STEM fields of students in U.S. territories and affiliated islands.
Her presentation — “New species of conopeate Nitzschia in the Pacific Islands” — won third place in the student poster competition at the 26th International Diatom Symposium, held virtually from Aug. 23 to 25 out of Yamagata, Japan. The symposium brought together hundreds of diatom researchers from around the world.
The species Sison focused on in her presentation were just five of many potentially new species of diatoms she found while examining microbial mat and mud samples.
Diatom samples from Palau, Yap, Pohnpei, and the Marshall Islands were collected and mailed to the UOG lab by interns in the 2021 NSF INCLUDES Bridge-to-Bachelor’s summer program: Kebang Ngiraklang, a student at the Palau Community College under the mentorship of Vernice Yuki, and Iverson Aliven and Marlin Lee Ling, from the College of Micronesia-FSM under the mentorship of Brian Lynch.
Using the laboratory’s new Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM), which was funded by the university’s Guam NSF EPSCoR grant, Sison and Lobban were able to examine the samples intensively.
Sison is now in the process of naming the potentially new species. One of them will be named Nitzschia biseriata because of its unique characteristic of having double rows of pores on its body instead of one.
“‘Two rows’ translated into Latin is ‘biseriate,’” Lobban said. “If there’s an obvious characteristic like that, it’s useful to name it that way because then it will tell people something about the species.”
Sison’s findings will officially be new species once a paper about the diatoms has been peer-reviewed and approved for publication.
“It’s been really interesting to study diatoms,” Sison said. “In the words of Dr. Lobban, it’s like an adult treasure hunt. You never know what you’ll find.”
Both Sison and Prelosky will present more complete results of her project at the 2021 National Diversity in STEM Digital Conference, which will be held by SACNAS from Oct. 25–29. The NSF INCLUDES: SEAS Islands Alliance is administered by the UOG Center for Island Sustainability and Sea Grant programs in partnership with the School of Education at the University of Guam. UOG faculty members Austin Shelton, Cheryl Sangueza, and Else Demeulenaere serve as investigators of the grant award. NSF INCLUDES collaborates closely with the Guam NSF EPSCoR program, also funded by the National Science Foundation.
The diatom herbarium, which is part of the University of Guam (UOG) Herbarium and the Guam Ecosystems Collaboratorium for Corals and Oceans (GECCO) Biorepository is getting new, archival labels in recognition of its permanent value as a repository of diatom samples from the Marianas. The GECCO Biorepository is a physical and cyber warehouse of records and images that is operated by the Guam NSF EPSCoR program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation.
Diatoms are microscopic single-celled algae found in oceans, lakes, and rivers.
“Diatoms produce two-fifths of the oxygen we breathe and are used as water quality indicators in freshwater studies,” said UOG Professor Emeritus of Biology Christopher Lobban. “But for the marine species to be useful as indicators, we first have to find out what species live here and under what conditions.” The collection is a legacy project that was started by Lobban in 1988 and includes samples collected in Guam, Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, Palau, and the Marshall Islands. The collection was paused for nearly two decades, but was rekindled in 2007 when new equipment, collaborators, and online access to old literature became available.
As the project grew, it became apparent that it needed to be curated as a collection for long-term accessibility. Once the self-sticking slide labels from its start in 1988 began to fall off from age, Lobban found best practices for museums and acquired archival paper, special adhesives, and custom templates to catalog 3,000 existing slides and label new slides.
“If the slides are to be useful in the future the labels need to stay on,” said Lobban. “The label indicates the sample number, which refers to the collecting information in the lab notebooks and database. Not knowing where and when the samples were collected significantly decreases their scientific value.” There are over 3,300 slides and 1,600 scanning electron microscope stubs, along with raw materials and remainders in the diatom herbarium, which is located in the Microscopy Teaching and Research Lab.
The list of cataloged materials has been entered into the Guam NSF EPSCoR Biorepository online database. A long-term project is underway to get all of the imaged specimens added along with their images. The online database can be accessed at https://specifyportal.uog.edu.
The effects of overfishing parrotfish, coral bleaching, and coral diseases are some of the local issues that students sought to address using mathematical modeling this summer. The students — five undergraduate students and one recent graduate — were part of the first-ever Summer Math Research Experience held from June 7 to July 23 at the University of Guam.
“The more I dove into modeling systems in this program, I’ve realized that math can actually do a lot,” said Henry Song, a recent computer science graduate. “I didn’t realize that something like coral reefs were able to be modeled by math. It was a really good learning experience.”
The summer program was part of the Guam Ecosystems Collaboratorium for Corals & Oceans (GECCO) project, funded by the NSF EPSCoR grant. Part of the project’s aim is to increase the number and diversity of students who pursue careers in STEM.
“All of the projects this year were focused on local issues, so I was excited to help out this summer,” said Regina Mae Dominguez, one of two research assistants who served as mentors for the students.
The Summer Math Research Experience was held in conjunction with two other research experience programs: the Young Research Experience in Mathematics and the National Research Experience for Undergraduates Program. Students in these programs investigated the effects of pathogens on the population dynamics of the coconut rhinoceros beetle while the other group developed models to study the population dynamics of the Mariana eight-spot butterfly and parasitoid wasps.
The students’ work from this first GECCO summer program will assist modeling efforts in the Common Garden Project, a four-year EPSCoR-funded study launched in August that will examine three habitat-forming coral species over a multi-year span and their responses to environmental change.
“By Year 2, we should have a dataset ready,” said Dr. Bastian Bentlage, associate professor of bioinformatics. “Halfway through this year’s math program, we collected the first two data points for the Common Garden. Since we’re interested in seasonal dynamics, having data from a full season should allow them to apply that data to their models.”
Once the models have been developed, they will be used to support reef management and intervention strategies.
“We’re going to model disease transmission and the corals’ responses to environmental stress,” said Dr. Leslie Aquino, associate professor of mathematics. “The math faculty will look at what the students this year have done, and our next set will continue to build on these models or expand on them.”
Participate in the Summer Math Research Experience
Students and researchers from the UOG Marine Laboratory came out last Saturday morning to clean up a part of Pago Bay.
The beach cleanup was organized by Anela Duenas, an NSF INCLUDES: SEAS Islands Alliance research fellow who is being mentored by Dr. Bastian Bentlage.
“I really liked the idea of cleaning up the beach that is connected to the bay where we take our seawater from to use for our research. It helped me feel more connected to what we do and think about how we can help more beyond the research that we do at the marine lab,” Duenas said.
Flyers were posted last week throughout the UOG Marine Laboratory to invite people to join the event. Participants found items such as fishing lines, bottles, wrappers, a grill, and a hat.
As the planet experiences heatwaves, warming seas, and other effects of climate change, researchers from the University of Guam (UOG) will examine how these impacts may affect the structure of the island’s coral reefs by identifying species-specific responses to environmental change.
The experiment, which is being funded by the university’s National Science Foundation EPSCoR grant, will study three habitat-forming coral species that are dominant throughout the island’s shallow reef flats, two of which exist in distinctly different color morphologies. These species include: the boulder-like massive Porites, which grows in both brown and purple morphologies; the fingerlike Porites cylindrica, which grows in brown and yellow morphologies; and the staghorn coral Acropora cf. pulchra. Cuttings of each coral species and color morph were planted in four plots in two sections of the Piti Marine Preserve and will be monitored for the next four years.
“We hope to learn about which of these species and their color morphs have characteristics that may confer better resilience to climate change,” said Professor Laurie Raymundo, the interim director of the UOG Marine Laboratory. “That will allow us to examine why they’re doing better and why some of them aren’t doing as well. Eventually, we may be able to make some predictions about how Guam’s reefs may change in the future.”
This project is unique because many studies are conducted within a much shorter time period.
“In most cases, people conduct an experiment for a whole season,” said UOG Associate Professor Bastian Bentlage. “There are not a lot of datasets – especially over
a multi-year span – that look at individual corals and really provide data on how they get stressed, and recover, and follow the long-term effects of experiencing that stress.”
The plots will be checked biweekly during the bleaching season from July to October and monthly from November to June, when sea surface temperatures are cooler.
The data collected from this experiment will be used by a team of mathematics professors and students at the university to model disease transmission and responses to stress, to better inform reef management and intervention strategies.
“We hope to gain a better understanding of what Guam’s reefs will look like in the future and what kind of traits lend themselves to coral resilience so that we can implement control measures that will result in a healthier coral reef ecosystem,” said UOG Associate Professor Leslie Aquino. “We’re really seeing the benefits of this cross collaboration between the Math and Marine Laboratory teams and sparking new ideas and better understanding for both groups of how these models and coral reef ecosystems work.”
At the end of the experiment, each of the plots will be left to grow into new reef assemblages as part of a permit agreement with the Guam Department of Agriculture. Monitoring beyond this project may continue to contribute to an even longer-term data set that can continue to inform management.
During the initial planting of the coral cuttings, Bentlage noticed that young fish were attracted to and visiting the plots. According to a study based in Fiji, juvenile fish are able to smell the difference between good and bad reefs.
“I still think that was one of the coolest, most eye-opening things,” said Bentlage. “It was really interesting to see how it attracted the fish community that now seems to be resident in these plots. I hope that I can come back five to ten years from now and see how our experimental plot turned into the seedling of a new reef track.”
The Guam EPSCoR Guam Ecosystems Collaboratorium (GEC) Biorepository is welcoming its largest addition yet – a private collection of around 30,000 coral specimens from University of Guam Professor Emeritus of Marine Biology Richard Randall.
The collection includes specimens from Guam and other places throughout the Pacific and reflects the 56 years since Randall joined the UOG Marine Laboratory, which he spent researching coral reef biology and geology.
During the late 1960s, Randall witnessed the first crown of thorns outbreak on Guam and managed to retrieve a few coral samples before they were eaten. He claims some of these specimens may be new species and others may not exist today.
“He took meticulous field notes, so we have really good data about each of these specimens,” said David Burdick, the biorepository’s collections manager. “He also recorded an unusual amount of data like where it was living, its name, and how much light it was exposed to and how that may have influenced its shape. That information can help us understand their habitat requirements and discern between similar species.”
So far, the facility has received less than a tenth of the collection’s specimens and may take years to catalog each item and upload them to the biorepository’s website.
“Right now, we’re going through all of the coral specimens and cataloging the ones we have with the specimen number he gave them and the notes that connects them to the specimen,” said Kelsie Ebeling-Whited, the biorepository’s technician. “We log the
specimen number, the note number, its species, and family. We want that all in a database so that we know what corals we have.”
Once the collection has been processed, it will serve as a resource for researchers around the world to better understand the diversity of the corals found in the Pacific.
“It’s going to be a lot of work,” Burdick said. “In some cases, if he’s described a new species, we’d have to publish it in a book or a journal about it. I feel like we’re always trying to play catch-up trying to understand more about these organisms before we lose some of them. It’s an impressive collection that’s really important for us to take care of and share with the world and try to use it to provide an impetus for collaborative research.”
About the biorepository
The Guam EPSCoR-GEC Biorepository serves as a world-class physical and cyber warehouse of Micronesian marine biodiversity enhancing local research capacity and facilitating collaborative research through global access to specimen records and images. The facility is operated by the Guam EPSCoR program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. The online collection database can be accessed at https://specifyportal.uog.edu/.